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Could South Belfast return a Unionist to Parliament without a pact?

Andrew Charles crunches the numbers in South Belfast and argues that, as the top-polling unionist in the area, the DUP’s Jimmy Spratt could return seat for Unionism in the absence of a pact with UCUNF. Beyond communal lines, Alastair McDonnell has provided less than effective representation at Westminster, he says. A second term for McDonnell is not only bad for unionism but it’s also bad news for electors of all shades in the south of the city…

Let’s face it; a pact would be preferable in South Belfast whilst essential in Fermanagh South Tyrone.

South Belfast returned SDLP member Alasdair McDonnell in 2005. He won with a majority of only 1,235 votes and a total vote of 10,339. Coming in second was Jimmy Spratt of the DUP, then an unknown candidate, with a total vote of 9,104. Third came the UUP’s Michael McGimpsey, a man who topped the Assembly poll in 2003 for his party, with a total vote of 7,263.

The above table shows that despite Unionism having over 50 percent of the vote in South Belfast Alasdair McDonnell won the seat whilst commanding only one third of the total vote.

Competition within Unionism saw this seat lost to Nationalism with the DUP taking the lions share of the vote at 29.6 percent. However a few observations: in 2005 the DUP were relatively unrepresented in South Belfast holding only one out of the three Unionist seats. Today they are represented in South Belfast by the man who nearly took the seat for Unionism in 2005, Jimmy Spratt. In 2007 Unionism only secured a total of two seats in the constituency, largely down to a low Unionist turnout and the presence of Anna Lo, a high-profiled Alliance candidate who benefited from a seat at the expense of Unionism due to the complex electoral system of Proportional Representation.

The UUP, now Conservatives and Unionists – New Force, are standing a little known candidate called Paula Bradshaw. The 2007 Assembly election shows a poor showing for the UUP who saw a former Minister, Michael McGimpsey, gain only 2,647 votes. This compared to the 2003 Assembly election, which saw the DUP take the led within Unionism, McGimpsey topped the poll with 5,389 votes taking Esmond Birnie in with him.

The Assembly election of 2007 therefore represented a UUP ‘meltdown’ and by standing a little known candidate who is not known in the constituency they will fail to gain anything close to their 7,263 votes back in 2005. If the UUP were to gain victory it would have been back in 2005 and reflected in the 2007 Assembly election.

This seat is within the DUP’s grasp without an agreed candidate. Standing Jimmy Spratt the party has had five years to build up a profile and the party topped the poll in the 2007 Assembly election. Jimmy sits on the Policing board and has been active in the constituency, on television and in the papers because of his role in Chairing the Committee responsible for the devolution of Policing and Justice powers.

However the factors that could effect this election is whereby Sinn Fein voters ‘lend’ their vote to McDonnell to keep out a Unionist. Alasdair in his acceptance speech before his local constituency association stated that people must never allow a “hard-lined” Unionist represent the constituency, referring to the MP for South Belfast of some 24 years, Martin Smyth. The SDLP are fighting this constituency on ‘delivery’ in an attempt to attract votes from outside their key voter base – i.e. liberal Unionists who McDonnell has targeted since 2005.

Alasdair McDonnell however has an attendance record in the Commons of 21 percent, has only asked a total of 10 written questions and taken part in a total of 11 debates. Has he been the most effective MP?

Martin Smyth in comparison attended a total of 53 percent of votes in Parliament (no data for debates or questions).  His expense claims were quite frankly much lower than Alasdair McDonnell’s which have been on average representing roughly 75 percent of Dr McDonnell’s. This is also despite the fact that Dr McDonnell also has an Assembly allowance to claim from. In 2009/10 (up to December 2009) he claimed a total of £55,609.05 from the Assembly. For the years: 2008/09 he claimed £14,367.00; 2007/08 £14,153.87; 2006/07 £10,292.35 and 2005/06 £48,506.13. He therefore has proved to be quite an expensive representative.

The choice is clear come election day but this seat is winnable by the DUP with a more highly profiled representative who came from nowhere in 2005 and in reach of taking the seat by a mere 1,200 votes. Taking into consideration that the constituency has become 1% more Unionist, with the boundary changes, this seat is within easy reach but it all boils down to how the day goes and what happens between now and polling day. The SDLP have been working hard on the ground, to be fair to them, but will this be enough to keep the seat when the demographics and votes are stacked against them? Furthermore a low Unionist turnout in South Belfast on polling day is likely to affect the outcome of this election and possibly hand it back to Dr McDonnell.

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8 Responses

  1. thedissenter says:

    The biggest problem for the unionist parties all round will be voter apathy (or distrust/disillusion). The Assembly vote saw a drop in both UUP vote and DUP vote, with the DUP failing to bring home a second seat despite that expectation. What has changed to have unionists run to the polls in this constituency? This is a seat that nationalism has gained rather than won. It is certainly a seat where lack of any sort of leadership has left the unionist electorate without any inspiration to come out to vote.

  2. The Watchman says:

    Interesting analysis but I fear the answer is “No”. The DUP did better province-wide in 2007 than it did in 2005, but under-performed in SB, not getting Stalford elected as expected. Spratt is a solid enough individual but I doubt that someone every inch the ex-RUC man is ideal to win over an unusually diverse urban unionist electorate. The DUP might well have done better to nominate younger New DUP people like Hamilton or McIlveen here.

    The priority must be to get McDonnell out and one of the two unionist parties will have to swallow their pride within the next 2 weeks.

  3. thedissenter says:

    Reference was SB Assembly vote only as that was the subject of the post.

  4. st etienne says:

    Crying over spilled milk here but if political unionism was really looking for a stand out candidate McCann would have been it.

  5. The Watchman says:

    The big problem with McCann was a total lack of judgment. First, he was indiscreet about the UUP getting Tory money. Second, he compared the DUP to the BNP on screen in front of a surprised Michael Crick. (Say what you like about the DUP but they aren’t neo-fascists.) You’d want a candidate to have more wit than that.

    It’s going to take a special kind of unionist to win this back. As the constituency has probably greened slightly since 2005, I’d reckon the notional majority may be higher than 188 votes in reality.

    Focus people: one of the 2 unionists in the field needs to step down.

  6. st etienne says:

    that’s a fair point re McCann and I guess with getting in individual’s from outside the usual political channels in general.

    But…

    It can be argued that’s as much a criticism of the inflexibility of these channels (am thinking the constituency association, etc) in adapting to new policy (in this case specifically the Tory linkup, but also in adapting to support for non-traditional demographics).

  7. Framer says:

    A Unionist win if there is no single agreed candidate, and that remains a possibility, would depend on Unionist voters going heavily one way not the relatively even split in 2005.

    Direction would be required from outside entities like the News Letter or senior retired Unionists.

  8. The Watchman says:

    Framer has identified an important problem. Given the DUP’s problems in adjacent seats, how will unionists in South Belfast know which party is more likely to win?

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